Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Weissbort’

Joseph Brodsky wrote an annual Christmas poem. Why did he do it?

Thursday, December 24th, 2020

A Christmas card from the Brodsky Foundation features “Anno Domini” and Martin Schongauer.

My favorite Christmas card this year has a poem on it. The Joseph Brodsky Foundation usually doesn’t disappoint – not even in the year of COVID, which has put a damper on the season, as well as on its Christmas cards. This year’s greeting features Martin Schongauer‘s 1475 engraving and the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 1968 poem, “Anno Domini,” in the Russian. Can’t read Russian? You can read Daniel Weissbort‘s translation of the poem in The Iowa Review here. Or you could buy a copy of Brodsky’s Nativity Poemsa superb collection of eighteen of the poems he wrote annually, as a sort of birthday greeting. The collection is translated by a number of first-rate translators, including Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney.

The Russian poet said the annual discipline pretty much began when he began to write poems seriously. He tried to write a poem for every Christmas – even though the Jewish poet called himself an atheist. “I liked that concentration of everything in one place – which is what you have in that cave scene,” he explained. But that’s not all of it, either. He once facetiously described himself “a Christian by correspondence.” I suspect he was only half joking.

Why did he do it? Here’s the way  himself explained it in an interview with Peter Vail, included in the book:

I’ll tell you how it all started. I wrote the first Nativity poems, I think, in Komarovo. I was living at a dacha, I don’t remember whose, though it might have been Academician [Aksel] Berg’s. And there I cut a picture out of a Polish magazine, I think it was Przekrój. The picture was Adoration of the Magi, I don’t remember by whom. I stuck it on the ceramic stove and often looked at it in the evenings. It burned later on, the painting, and the stove, and the dacha itself. But at the time I kept on looking and decided to write a poem on the same subject. That is, it all began not from religious feelings, or from Pasternak or Eliot, but from a painting.

His fellow Nobelist, the Polish poet Czesław Miłoszgave me his own explanation twenty years ago: “If we cannot return to the stable world of the past, at least we can have some respect for some stable points. Brodsky would write every Christmas a poem – on that event, on the birth of Jesus.  This is a sort of piety, I should say, for the past, for some crucial points in our history.”

“Anno Domino” returned me to Nativity Poems tonight, on Christmas Eve. As I recall, I return to this volume every Christmas … my own “stable point.” From Richard Wilbur’s translation of 25.XII.1993:

… For miracles, gravitating
to earth, know just where people will be waiting,
and eagerly will find the right address
and tenant, even in a wilderness.

Another note on a remarkable man: Daniel Weissbort remembered

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

A gentle spirit and unassuming hero, at the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival in 2006.

If you don’t subscribe to the weekly “Poetry News in Review,” perhaps you should. I get a weekly email notice when the new page goes up on the Prairie Schooner website.  The maestro behind the page is David Sanders – a longtime friend and formerly the director of the Ohio University Press. We met more than a decade ago on Michael Peich‘s back porch at the West Chester Poetry Conference in Pennsylvania…I think.  All I remember was a conversation in the dark, somewhere at some gathering in some state, and the glow of his cigarette, which moved like a firefly as he gesticulated.

From this week’s eloquent “Envoi: Editor’s Notes,” remembering the master translator and poet Daniel Weissbort, who died last month:

There are so many people whose names do not appear on the marquee, even on a marquee as small as that of poetry, that we sometimes don’t think to recognize their achievement in service to the art. Daniel Weissport did have, for some, a recognizable name, but it is through his many contributions as a translator, editor, teacher, and scholar – that is, as a conduit, nearly invisible – by which we recognize him. I remember having breakfast with him once about thirty years ago, when he was a guest of a friend of mine, the translator, John DuVal. What struck me was his engagement and generosity, what seem in retrospect to be common traits among those who are primarily translators. Reading his obituary, I am all the more impressed though not surprised by the connections he fostered, the work he did, and the difference he made.

Read this week’s “Poetry News in Review” here(It also has a nice mention of the Book Haven’s post on Natalia Gorbanevskaya, the Russian dissident poet whose work he translated and championed. She died last week at 77.)

She never sniveled: Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013)

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Free. (Photo: Dmitry Kuzmin)

The Russian poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya declared unequivocally that, for a poet, living in an alien land is “a source of new potency.”

It’s lucky that she thought so, because she really had no choice.  The dissident writer fled the Soviet Union for Paris in the 1970s. And that’s where she died, last night, at 77.  In one of those odd synchronicities, I had been excerpting a poem she wrote for something I was writing – perhaps the first time ever that I had done so. As soon as I finished typing, I clicked to my Facebook page, and the director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Mikhail Iossel, mentioned  her death in the very top post on my screen.

According to her first translator and champion, Daniel Weissbort, writing in 1974, “Gorbanyevskaya has been a leading civil rights activist, one of the seven to demonstrate in Red Square on 5 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Because of her infant child, she was not tried along with the other demonstrators, and she continued to agitate on their behalf, compiling an account of their trial, Noon (published in England as Red Square at Noon). In December 1969 Gorbanyevskaya was herself finally arrested, and in April 1970 was declared to be suffering from schizophrenia and placed in a psychiatric prison hospital, first in Moscow, then in Kazan, where a course of drug treatment was administered. There has recently been a good deal of agitation in the West about the misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union as a means of dealing with dissenters, and whether for this reason or for some other, Gorbanyevskaya was released in February 1972.” Red Square at Noon included not only Weissbort’s translations of her poems, but a transcript of her trial, papers relating to her hospital detention, and an assessment by a British psychiatrist of her mental condition, based on evidence then available.

“One might suppose that Gorbanyevskaya verse would reflect her political activity,” Weissbort continued. “It is, on the contrary, intensely personal and non-public. It transcends politics, not accusing, but describing the psychic reality of her situation. One generation, has had the capacity of transmute her suffering into a universal image. The staccato pulse of her work, the near-hysterical shrillness, recall the poetry of that other poet of suffering, the great Marina Tsvetaeva. In Gorbanyevskaya’s love lyrics, the old Russian mystique of regeneration through suffering is evoked (this appears, less intensely, in Yuli Daniel’s poetry too). Physical love becomes an ordeal like Christ’s on the Cross. Gorbanyevskaya has had the immense courage to remain vulnerable. Hers is the poetry of pain, of separation, of isolation, of despair, of threatening disaster, of disaster present.”

In Gorbanevskaya’s 1991 interview, the poet had an upbeat outlook on her flight for survival:  “I think that we poets are in general enriched by the experience of emigration or exile. Well, if we don’t snivel … that is if we don’t just start to describe the exotica or just start getting nostalgic – in so far as we are submissive to the language, we bring to it everything that we can beg, borrow or steal from other languages. And the language, in so far as it is grateful to us, has yet more to give us in return.”

She never sniveled.  I met Gorbanevskaya in Kraków in 2011. As I wrote here:  “The poet, by then in her midseventies, was short and unfashionably dressed, with short, grizzled hair and thick stockings. She held the small stub of a cigarette like a defiant wand, its end glowing in the dying day on a sidestreet in Kazimierz. When she spoke to me, in French (Paris has been her home since 1976), her voice was probing and intelligent, her eye contact unflinching. She seemed tough-​minded, durable, and utterly lacking in self-​pity.”

I didn’t know her well, but Daniel Weissbort, who died a few days ago (I wrote about that here), did.  So I’ll let him speak. From his book, From Russian with Love:  “While I appreciated the opportunity of working with a poetry so different from my own and indeed from the Russian poetry to which I had previously been drawn, I also suspected that I did not have the language adequately to express the agony, even if as a reader I was responsive.” At that time, Joseph Brodsky had just arrived in the West, and Weissbort didn’t realize that he was a friend of the Moscow poet:


After her release from prison.

“Anyway, as far as I can remember, we were lingering at the front of the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium, just below the stage, perhaps during an interval at the end of that day’s readings, when Brodsky said to me, apropos of the Gorbanevskaya versions (it surprised me that he was aware of them: ‘If you were to die tomorrow, would you want to be judged by these translations?’

It seemed unlikely that this was a simple inquiry! I must have been somewhat shocked. Not only because we had just met, but also because his remark echoed, if more forcefully than I would have put it myself, my own doubts and anxieties about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about my Gorbanevskaya versions. Although I had read the account of her trial and, in addition to translating her poetry, had also written about her ‘ordeal’, I doubt whether I had much grasp of its significance. I imagine that Joseph was trying to get across the gravity of a situation when art, in a way, was all you had; that is, he was not merely suggesting that my translations left much to be desired. Though I took what he said as a comment on the translations, I may have received the other message too, since I did not respond as defensively as might have been expected. …. my translations were largely the product of a kind of optimism. That they had their moments was perhaps the best that could be said of them. Still, I realized that, though possibly wrong-headed, Joseph was not being unkind or malicious. Certainly he was not mealy-mouthed, but this helped me begin to see that the context was larger than one simply of translation, the translation of words. My first exchange with Brodsky, thus, took the form of a kind of summons to greater personal commitment. What such a commitment might entail, in his view, was not immediately clear to me, although I already suspected that, prosodically at least, it had to do with formal imitation, the point being that this had a moral dimension.”

Here’s my favorite poem from Red Square at Noon, which I bought in the 1970s.  The 1961 poem has remained my favorite ever since.  In fact, it was the poem I was transcribing when I heard that she had died. In English and Russian:

redsquareIn my own twentieth century
where there are more dead than graves
to put them in, my miserable
forever unshared love

among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.

В моем родном двадцатом веке,
где мертвых больше, чем гробов,
моя несчастная, навеки
неразделенная любовь

средь этих гойевских картинок
смешна, тревожна и слаба,
как после свиста реактивных
иерихонская труба.

Update on 12/3:  Obituary from Agence France-Presse/The Raw Story here.  New York Times obituary here.

R.I.P. Daniel Weissbort, champion of translation everywhere

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Reading at the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival, 2006

Daniel Weissbort is dead. I heard this yesterday from Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in the U.K., but hadn’t been able to confirm it till I found it posted here, on the website of the influential journal he founded with Ted Hughes in 1965, Modern Poetry in Translation. He continued to edit the magazine until 2003.

Perhaps the major obituaries are yet to come out, but it’s surprising how little a splash major figures in translation make in today’s world, although Weissbort was also a poet of note. I never met him face-to-face, but I know him from once remove; his wife, the Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina, is a colleague, friend and regular correspondent. He would have been 78 this year, and I know he has been ill for some years.

According to the website (which has a page for tributes here):

He was associated with MPT for nearly forty years, and he saw it through its birth as a “scrappy-looking thing – just to keep their spirits up…” (from a letter by Ted Hughes to Daniel Weissbort in 1965) to becoming a periodical of international importance and renown, which published some of the best international poets in the best translations. He was also a translator of poetry and a poet in his own right, and he made it his cause to get Russian poetry better known and better read in the English-speaking world, editing and translating Russian poetry tirelessly, and hosting and leading translation workshops. His most recent translations of the Russian poet Inna Lisnianskaya Far from Sodom were published to great acclaim by Arc Publications in 2005.

mpt3Nicholas Wroe, whose 2001 Guardian interview with Czesław Miłosz was included my volume Czesław Miłosz: Conversations, interviewed Weissbort in the same year.  It was posted on a few Facebook pages:

“Poetry happens everywhere,” writes Daniel Weissbort in the introduction to Mother Tongues, “but sometimes, often, it happens in languages that do not attract attention. We are the poorer for not experiencing it, at least to the extent it can be experienced in translation.”

Although he wasn’t conscious of it at the time, translation had been a part of this poet, editor and translator’s life from the outset. “My parents were Polish Jews who came to London from Belgium in the early 1930s,” Weissbort explains. “They spoke French at home because that was the language they met in, but I was so determined to be English that I’d always answer them in English.” …

It was Hughes’s idea to get as many literal translations of work as possible. “We didn’t want carefully worked, minute things that took forever to produce,” explains Weissbort. “It sounds a bit insensitive now, but we wanted quantity even if it was in quite rough-and-ready translation.” He says that at the moment one of the big debates in translation is between so called foreignisation and domestication. “Domestication looks like something that was first written in English,” explains Weissbort. “Post-colonial theory is very much in favour of foreignisation, seeing domestication as an imperialistic strategy that is opposed to allowing the foreignness to come into the language. I suppose we were foreignisers before it was invented.”‘

Weissbort3Weissbort is also due to publish his own, 11th collection of poems, Letters to Ted, written after Hughes’s death, as well as a memoir of Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky.  (Read the rest here.)

I reviewed the latter volume, From Russian with Love, in a Kenyon Review article called “Uncle Grisha Was Right” – it’s here.  Being a Brodsky translator was a crushing, ego-deflating experience for many, and Weissbort was one of the earliest translators, before he could have taken courage from the tales of other casualties. Weissbort agonizes over the experience, analyzing and doubting himself – something the Russian Nobel laureate never did.  As I wrote: “He [Brodsky] came from a culture that had bypassed Freud and his heirs, where an enemy was an enemy and not just a projection of an inner landscape. He was not, to put it mildly, a man crippled with a sense of his own contradictions. Hence, his attacks could be unambiguous and fierce. As sycophants multiplied exponentially, it became hard, some of his friends say, to tell him the truth—for example, the truth about his abilities to write English verse and translate into it.”

Yet in the end, Weissbort seemed to be unexpectedly buoyed by the experience, and came to a startling conclusion that says as much about the master translator as it does about the poet:

Weissbort__From_Russian“At a commencement address years later, he [Brodsky] spoke of ‘those who will try to make life miserable for you,’ and added: ‘Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists. . . .’

That’s the legacy of the man. But the poetry? Weissbort seesaws and perseverates for pages and pages, and there is much repetition and confusing back-and-forth in time … Yet despite the waffling and self-deprecation, he makes a central, remarkable contention: Weissbort argues that Brodsky ‘was trying to Russianize English, not respecting the genius of the English language, … he wanted the transfer between the languages to take place without drastic changes, this being achievable only if English itself was changed.’

In short, Weissbort invites us to listen to Brodsky’s poetry on its own terms. As he tells a workshop: ‘It’s like a new kind of music. You may not like it, may find it absurd, outrageous even, but admit, if only for the sake of argument, that this may be due to its unfamiliarity. Give it a chance, listen!’”

Update on 12/3:  Guardian obituary by Sasha Dugdale is here.


“No Other Place, No Other Time” — I discuss Miłosz, Brodsky in the Kenyon Review

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

In the spring issue of the illustrious Kenyon Review, I review two books: Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (Yale University Press) and Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2, edited by Valentina Polukhina (Academic Studies Press).

That’s the good news.  The bad is that you are only allowed to read the first page online.  It’s here.

So here’s a little more from the piece, for free:  Joseph Brodsky‘s reading style has been much remarked upon, and I open my article with Brodsky’s first engagement outside Russia, at London’s 1972 Poetry International Festival, in the first few dizzying weeks of his exile: “the poet poured out his poems in the hypnotic incantation that was to become his trademark: an archaic sound — a lament from a lost civilization, an ancient prayer, or simply a metronomic wail.”

Daniel Weissbort remembers Brodsky reading this way:

“ . . . his hands straining the pockets of his jacket, his jaw jutting, as though his attention had just been caught by something and he were staring at it, scrutinizing it, while continuing to mouth the poem, almost absent-mindedly, that is, while the poem continues to be mouthed by him. His voice rises symphonically: ‘syn ili Bog’ [‘son or God’], already on the turn towards an abrupt descent; and then the pause and a resonant drop, a full octave: ‘Ya tvoi’ [‘I am thine’]. As the poet, with an almost embarrassed or reluctant nod, and a quick, pained smile, departs his poem”.

I continue:

Gross recounts that Brodsky was asked about his declamatory bent during his triumphant tour of Poland, and landed this punch: “Today’s poet is afraid of the sardonic laughter of his reader, and because of it he tries to soften his poems . . . This is a mistake. The poet should charge his public like a tank, so that the reader has no escape. Poetry is an act of metaphysical and linguistic attack, not of a retreat. If a poet wants to be modest and nonaggressive, he should stop writing.”

Not Miłosz’s style, to put it mildly, and so he gently chastised the younger poet. Miłosz also lamented Brodsky’s poetry in English: “The resistance against writing poetry in other languages should be considered a virtue. . . . We are born in a concrete point of the Earth and we have to remain faithful to this point, restrained in our following of foreign fashions.”

This was more than a case of brass meeting polish. Miłosz saw history as a horror he wished to escape, but in a larger sense, he was also at home in the wider story of centuries. He was a son of the Polish-speaking landed gentry in Lithuania and had a law degree from Stefan Batory University. The urbane elder poet had the educational context lacking in Brodsky, the defiant autodidact who dropped out of school as a teenager. When cornered on an error or a prejudice, Brodsky covered himself by firing off a belligerent blast; Miłosz could put his views into a historical framework, whether by referring to pronouncements of the medieval popes or the legal system of the Res publica. History, language, tradition connected with Catholicism because, writes Gross, “Without God there is no history.” But where Miłosz turned to tradition and his Catholicism, Brodsky was in a tailspin and could not find peace.

From Irena’s book, I recount this devastating story:

Few have written about solitude and time with Brodsky’s urgency, before he was finally felled, at fifty-five, by the heart ailments that had dogged him for decades. “Miłosz was very busy, yet he sounded like a person who was not pressed for time. Brodsky ran against time,” writes Gross. “In that fight he was not supported by religion or by history — national or private.” Time was truly his enemy.

Gross recounts this riveting anecdote: “In 1994, when he was forced to visit a cardiologist during his stay in Sweden, he told him that he felt like a wounded animal who simply tried to survive. He expected to die at any time; when leaving his hotel room, he would put his papers in order. ‘Hurry sickness’ was the diagnosis of the psychologist who interviewed him on that occasion”.

The Kenyon Review can be ordered online here.